Steve Carell as Dan Burns
Juliette Binoche as Marie
Dane Cook as Mitch Burns
Alison Pill as Jane Burns
Brittany Robertson as Cara Burns
Marlene Lawston as Lilly Burns
Dianne Wiest as Nana
John Mahoney as Poppy Burns
Norbert Leo Butz as Clay Burns
Amy Ryan as Eileen
Jessica Hecht as Amy
Frank Wood as Howard
Henry Miller as Will
Ella Miller as Rachel
C.J. Adams as Elliott Burns
Directed by Peter Hedges
An utterly charming crowd-pleasing comedy that takes a natural approach to finding humor in real-life situations, “Dan in Real Life” adds another impressive performance to Steve Carell’s resume.
Dan Burns (Steve Carell), advice columnist and a single father of three girls after the death of his wife, takes them to spend a week at a Rhode Island beach house with his family, including his competitive younger brother Mitch (Dane Cook). While on a routine shopping run, Dan meets the vivacious Marie (Juliette Binoche) and they form an immediate connection only for Dan to learn that she’s Mitch’s new girlfriend. The key is for Dan to get through the week with Mitch, Marie and his three growing daughters without getting even more wound-up than he already is.
When a movie comes along that straddles the line between comedy and drama, it’s often hard to balance those elements in a way that feels natural, yet Peter (“Pieces of April”) Hedges’ second film does just that, making it difficult to compartmentalize it into either genre by the way it effortlessly blends a number of subplots into the family vacation of a 40-something widower trying to raise three daughters.
Steve Carell’s Dan is renowned in his local community for the advice he does out in his newspaper column, but after the death of his wife, he’s been forced to deal with three growing daughters, each of them posing their own problems whether it’s the 15-year-old wanting to drive or his even younger daughter having fallen in love with her first boyfriend. On an annual trip to the Rhode Island beach house to spend a week with Dan’s family, Dan meets a gorgeous woman named Marie (Binoche) at a bookstore. There’s an immediate connection and an attraction, and Marie seems like a godsend to Dan until he finds out that she’s his younger brother’s girlfriend, which leads to many awkward moments as they try to keep their earlier meeting and flirtation a secret from the rest of the family, especially Mitch, who already has a competitive relationship with his older brother.
There are elements of “Dan” that can be compared favorably to broader comedies like “Meet the Parents” and “Wedding Crashers” in terms of the easy to relate to humor to be found invariably in all quirky family gatherings. It never falls into the traps or cliches of normal high concept romantic comedies, because the humor never seems forced, instead being based on realistic situations and emotions, mostly in the form of Dan’s isolation from the rest of his family, as he’s forced to sleep in the laundry room, being the only single adult in the family. Much of Dan’s arc revolves around him coming to terms with his teen daughters growing up and accepting that they’re responsible young women who can make smart decisions. Dan learns to lighten up as he realizes how close they’re getting to Marie, often entrusting her with things they can never confide in their father.
If you liked Carell in “40-Year-Old Virgin” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” you’re just as sure to enjoy his multi-layered performance here, which offers subtler humor with a lot of credible heartfelt emotion. The mildly funny quips in the commercial don’t really give a clear idea of the film’s strengths, which usually comes in the form of the surprisingly solid chemistry between Carell and Binoche. On paper, one wouldn’t think that the two very different actors would be able to connect, but Binoche delivers in this lighter role than we’ve normally seen her play. Likewise, Dane Cook is a credible foil to Carell in their sparring over Marie.
Sometimes, it gets a bit too cute, but mostly, the situations and their inherent humor seems natural, and that’s a testament to Hedges’ ability at writing credible dialogue and assembling a talented cast of character and stage actors to deliver it. The entire ensemble mesh together well as Carell and Cook’s family, adding a lot to the mix, especially the young actresses playing his daughters. The final ingredient in Hedges’ recipe is the pleasant acoustic-driven soundtrack by Sondre Lerche, an unknown Norwegian singer/songwriter who hits all the right beats with his simple melodic score.
The Bottom Line:
“Dan in Real Life” is a thoroughly charming and enjoyable film that mixes fun with a poignant look at life, love and family in all their ups and downs. Steve Carell gives another terrific performance that shows his range as an actor, and it proves that Hedges’ first film “Pieces of April” wasn’t a fluke. More importantly, it’s nice to finally see a movie that can put romance and humor together without making it seem contrived and forced.